My thoughts this week are with the people of Brussels. Husband and I visited last summer; it is a wonderful city. The terror attacks there underscore we’re living in a world where anything can happen anywhere at any time—in a Paris restaurant, on an Istanbul shopping street, in a Madrid train station, in a Mumbai hotel, in a Bali nightclub, at a running race in Boston, in a Manhattan skyscraper…
We just returned from Greece and Turkey, before that we were in Colombia/Peru/Ecuador (we left just as the Zika virus hit the news) and Paris (two days before the bombing there), among other places. After Paris many people asked how I felt about continuing to travel. Here is my response.
I still feel that way. The Brussels attacks are frightening, and they’re probably reason for airports to tighten up pre-checkpoint security (in India, we could only get into the airport by showing our boarding passes; several other foreign airports—I forget which ones—scanned our carry-ons as soon as we walked in the door) and for daily commuters in major transportation hubs to be as vigilant as ever—but they’re not a reason to stop traveling, or to avoid huge swaths of the globe out of a misperception your risk is greater there than anyplace else. They ARE reason to keep traveling, to make friends around the world, and to be a good ambassador for your country.
You have to separate the probability of a terrorist attack (it’s virtually certain there will be one in Europe during the next twelve months) with the probability of becoming a victim of a terrorist attack, and understand the psychological reasons why our fear of such an attack is out of proportion to the risk.
We’re more afraid of risks that are new and unfamiliar than of those we’ve lived with for a long time (e.g., heart disease, which kills about one in 500 Americans every year). We’re more afraid of risks that kill us in particularly gruesome ways—a plane crash, a shark attack, or the Ebola virus—than in mundane ways. We’re less afraid of risks we feel we have some control over, such as horseback rising or driving, even if it’s only the illusion of control. We’re more afraid of human-made dangers than of those from natural causes, such as solar radiation or earthquakes. We’re more afraid of risks that are highly publicized, especially on television, and those that involve spectacular events. One incident with multiple deaths has a much greater impact than many incidents each involving a single death. (That’s one reason why we fear plane crashes more than car crashes, even though the latter are far more likely.) You have to try to appreciate what’s bothering you is not risk itself but your uncertainty as to the degree of it.
Another thing to keep in mind is you shouldn’t focus on unlikely risks to the extent you end up doing more dangerous things. (For example, after 9/11, people chose to drive rather than to fly and deaths from auto accidents went way up. Cruise-goers focused on washing their hands frequently in order to avoid norovirus ended up forgetting to reapply their sunscreen and suffered more and worse sunburns than usual.)
When considering a trip, ask yourself “What is the likelihood of the situation affecting my trip?” The answer will probably be “pretty small.”
So drive VERY carefully on your way to the airport and enjoy all the things travel has to offer.